New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez has signed into law a bill that prohibits texting on New Mexico roads. The new law is a good step in the right direction in addressing what has become a very serious problem on New Mexico roads, which is reflective of a wider national problem. This behavior leads to an unacceptable number of automobile accidents resulting in injury or death.
Texting and driving has become an epidemic with disastrous consequences on our roads. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that 31% of drivers report that they have read or sent a text while driving in 30 days prior to their survey. Estimates on the Department of Transportation, www.distraction.gov, indicate that 660,000 drivers are using mobile phones or devices at any given time on American roadways.
Albeit not all from texting and driving, the CDC also estimates that 3,331 were killed on U.S. roads in 2011 in automobile accidents involving a distracted driver, and 387,000 were injured. These numbers include other types of distracted driving and it is actually a small improvement over 2010 but still reflects unacceptable dangers on our roads.
Questionable Deterrent Effect
So clearly laws such as these are needed to protect innocent drivers and pedestrians. The law is interesting for a number of reasons. One interesting aspect is the deterrent effect. The the fines are relatively low at $25 for a first offense and $50 for a second. They are in fact lower than the municipalities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe that have passed comparable city ordinances. It remains to be seen how much of a deterrent effect the new law will have with this level of fines.
The law prohibits not just sending messages but reading or viewing them. There is an exception for calling for medical or emergency assistance. Specifically, the bill states: “a person shall not read or view a text message or type on a handheld mobile communication device for any purpose while driving a motor vehicle, except to summon medical or other emergency help.”
Law Applies Even When Sitting at an Intersection
Interestingly, the bill defines “driving” to include sitting at an intersection or any temporary stop on the roadways. Again, there are a few exceptions. The bill excludes situations where the driver has pulled off the roadway or is stopped at a location where the vehicle can remain safely stationary. The language reads as follows:
“Driving” means being in actual physical control of a motor vehicle on a highway or street and includes being temporarily stopped because of traffic or at a traffic light, but “driving” excludes operating a motor vehicle when the vehicle has pulled over to the side of or off of an active roadway and has stopped at a location in which it can safely remain stationary.
There are a number of other important exclusions as well. First, GPS navigational devices are excluded. Second, the bill specifically excludes voice and/or hands-free devices. These exclusions make perfect sense and were perhaps necessary since these are now built into many vehicles. Finally, the bill defines “text message” fairly expansively to include any “digital communication transmitted or intended to be transmitted between communication devices.” This includes not just texting, but email and Internet inquires also.
Exclusions for GPS and Hands-Free Devices
The exclusions and inclusions make clear that the essence of the bill is to prohibit any use of a mobile phone or other device with the use of the hands. The bill is a good start toward addressing this safety issue.
As with all laws, the application of the law will likely lead to a host of problems in interpretation. The most obvious issue that will arise is whether the driver has safely pulled off the roadway or “has stopped at a location in which it can safely remain stationary.” This will no doubt be subject to varied (both sincere and not) interpretations.
Texting and driving is extremely dangerous. Just casual observation on the roads and at intersections suggests that the behavior is pretty widespread. Studies have suggested that texting and driving is just as, if not more, dangerous than drinking and driving. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive with some drivers doing both.
More Will Need to be Done to Protect our Roads
Enforcement of the bill will likely hit a few bumps and turns, but it is clearly a needed law. One look around on the road to see just how necessary it has become. Hopefully, the law will begin to change the culture that has led to such a widespread practice of very dangerous driving behavior. However, much more will need to be done in light of the pervasiveness of the practice.